Album cover

Back in the old days, a proto-version of the Black River’s described themselves as something called “Electric Americana.” I don’t know if they are still using that phrase in their marketing materials, but as I was working on this review for their latest album it jumped back into my mind and stayed there.

I am on record as arguing that Americana is not a type of music. Indeed, fresh off a pot of coffee in 2014 I referred to it as “this loathsome catch-all, this black hole of description, this perfidious non-thing.” Perhaps a bit over the top, but the years have not really changed my mind.

I’m pretty comfortable, however, with the idea of Americana as a mythos. The big mashup of tall tales, larger than life gunslingers, and weirdos living in the hills has hopelessly infected our national consciousness, even if it is largely bullshit (and tragic bullshit at that). It’s been mined for great music by an awful lot of people with a wide array of backgrounds. Indeed, I suspect that most of us are secretly prepared to at a moment’s notice put on a hat, travel to Arizona Territory, and engage in some sort of obscure ranch skirmish. I doubt that’s a source of anxiety in, say, Belgium.

The Black Rivers sound is music of a harsh frontier. Of exiled philosopher kings who have made hard choices and are comfortable with macro level themes. They actually remind me a little of the motto that used to be on bottles of Yukon Jack: “[a] taste born of hoary nights, where lonely men struggled to keep their fires lit and cabins warm.” Cowboy with a heavy dose of blues. Or at least a blues with stock TV western characters. Regardless of what you call it, nobody escapes their past in a Black River song.

But it isn’t necessarily formulaic – they often do it with a twist. Their new album begins with New Mexico, what seems to at first be a standard ballad about a lone rider traveling back from an unnamed southern town to his old life and love. A closer listen, however, reveals that he is an old man returning as a failure to a former existence that is likewise broken and decayed.

Lion of Bethlehem is upbeat, riding a jumpy guitar bit as it tells a slightly jumbled story about the adventures of Christ. I’m not entirely sure if it’s meant as a spiritual or a send up, but either way it sounds great with some nice backing vocals on the chorus from Lily McBride.

“Decent Man” is a stark blues, which suits guitarist Andy Frederick just fine. While Matt Sullivan roars out the vocal, Andy fills in every nook and cranny with searing lead licks. The song runs over five minutes, but (buttressed by some tasteful drum fills) he doesn’t run out of ideas.

“Twin Suns,” a duet between Sullivan and Lily McBride, is about a doomed rider pursued by Robert Johnson’s hellhound. Or maybe not totally doomed – it’s up to the listener to decide whether the character can make his own future or can do nothing more than face oblivion gracefully.

“Girl from the Granite Shore” is as close as the Black Rivers’ come to pop music. Which isn’t very close at all, except for a pretty catchy guitar hook. Beyond that it’s a monolithic atmospheric piece, something that Moses might be whistling while he toted the ten commandments down the mountain.

The rave-up “Nature’s Will” is my personal favorite. The rhythm guitar is positively chunky. Frederick’s solo succumbs to pentatonic mayhem halfway through, almost like he broke his strap and is trying to finish before his guitar falls on the studio floor. If I might be permitted an esoteric reference, the lead tone is like something off of Drivin’ N Cryin’s “Smoke.” The vocals sound like they are coming through a broken radio and you really can’t make out the words, but on a song like this who cares?

Another nice one is “Wrong Way to Get to Heaven,” a menacing blues number (well maybe not technically a blues, but it ought to be).

The closing track Wander Lust is almost indescribable – the best I can do is call it a grungy folk blues tossed on top of a disco beat, but that doesn’t begin to do it justice. I’m just in awe of it, whatever it is.

Just a couple of misses. Black River Medicine, brought to us by the rather obscure 4th Century saint James the Sinner, has some great apocalyptic lyrics that are dragged down by a fairly uninspired arrangement. The band also phones in a half-hearted take on Townes Van Zant’s “Waiting Around to Die,” which just seems unnecessary.

The release party for the album is taking place at The Ramblin’ House on Friday, October 8th. For the record, Yukon Jack is dreadful but probably ought to be experienced at least once.